Tuesday May 31st, 2016 2:02AM

Earnhardt Jr. wins 2nd Daytona 500 a decade later

By Jenna Fryer, AP Auto Racing Writer
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Through rain and wrecks, on Daytona's longest day, this was a drought Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was determined to end.

NASCAR's most popular driver won the Daytona 500 for the second time - a decade after his first victory - to snap a 55-race losing streak dating to 2012.

The victory Sunday night ended a streak of futility at Daytona International Speedway, where he finished second in three of the previous four 500s.

"Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you could feel in this sport besides accepting the trophy for the championship," said Earnhardt, who climbed from his car in Victory Lane and hugged every member of his Hendrick Motorsports crew. "I didn't know if I'd ever get the chance to feel it again and it feels just as good."

As he crossed the finish line in his No. 88 Chevrolet, the few who withstood a rain delay of 6 hours, 22 minutes screaming their support, Earnhardt euphorically radioed his crew, saying: "This is better than the first one!" He was met by Rick Hendrick after his victory lap, and the team owner climbed into the driver's window for a ride to victory lane.

"The world is right right now - Dale Junior just won the Daytona 500," teammate Jeff Gordon said. "That's a sign it's going to be a great season."

Rain stopped the race about 45 minutes after it began for a delay of more than six hours. When it resumed, Earnhardt dominated at the track where his father was killed in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 race.

He led six times for a race-high 54 laps - all after the rain delay - and seemed to have it under control until things got chaotic near the end. There were 42 lead changes and four multi-car accidents as the field closed in on the checkered flag.

An accident with seven laps to go triggered by pole-sitter Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 - Earnhardt's father's number making its return to the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2001 - set up a final two-lap shootout to the finish.

Earnhardt got a great jump past Brad Keselowski on the restart, and had Gordon behind him protecting his bumper. But Denny Hamlin came charging through the field and Earnhardt suddenly had a challenger with one lap to go.

Then an accident farther back involving former winners Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray brought out the caution and the win belonged to Earnhardt.

"We could fight off battle after battle. We got a little help at the end there from Jeff to get away on the restart," Earnhardt said. "This is amazing. I can't believe this is happening. I never take this for granted, man because it doesn't happen twice, let alone once."

Hamlin, who won two other races in the buildup to Sunday was trying to become the first driver to sweep Daytona, wound up second in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He was strongest before the rain delay, but had an issue with his radio when the race resumed and had difficulty hearing his spotter.

"It was tough and disappointing because I definitely could have used my spotter there at the end," Hamlin said. "I'm trying to look up at the scoreboard, trying to figure out how many laps are left. I'm so 50-50 on whether I'm (mad) or I'm happy. I just don't know. Any other year, I probably would have been jumping up and down."

Keselowski finished third in a Team Penske Ford, and said after watching a replay he knew he had no chance to win once drivers behind him committed to their moves and Hamlin came charging alongside him.

"I don't feel like there's anything I could have done differently," Keselowski said.

But as a driver who got his break when Earnhardt hired him to drive for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, Keselowski was able to deal with his disappointment.

"If there's ever a guy who is due, it's the guy who finished second three out of the last four years. He was due," Keselowski said. "So I'm happy for him and happy for all those guys. He's probably my best friend in the garage outside of my teammate."

Hendrick took fourth and fifth with Gordon and last year's race winner, Jimmie Johnson, in what quickly became a company-wide celebration.

"He's been knocking on the door of the 500 for a lot of years. He got it done tonight - did an awesome job," said Johnson, who beat Earnhardt to the finish line a year ago.

The win means Hendrick already has one of his four drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Under the new win-and-get-in format announced last month, Earnhardt is now eligible to race for the title and can spend the next 25 races preparing for the postseason.

"We might be in the Chase - I ain't going to worry about that," Earnhardt said from Victory Lane. "Trust me, man, we're going to have a blast this year."

Rain wreaked havoc on the event for the third time in six years, and this year's race was stopped after 38 laps as a strong storm blew into the area.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning in the area and advised people to take shelter, and fans fled from the grandstands.

NASCAR rolled out the track drying system Air Titan for several failed attempts over the delay. It was the only on-track activity for more than six hours, but there was plenty of behind-the-scenes fun as drivers desperately tried to stay entertained.

David Ragan made a pizza run in his firesuit, Hamlin played basketball, Clint Bowyer answered fans questions on Twitter and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.'s crew practiced tornado drills.

It hit absurd levels as Fox Sports tried to fill the air time with a replay of the 2013 race that hundreds of thousands did not understand wasn't a live broadcast. Social media exploded with congratulatory tweets for last year's winner, Johnson, who posted on his account: "I hear I won the #Daytona500? Haha! I also have friends confused and texting congratulations to me."

Fellow drivers had fun with the widespread error, too.

"Wait a minute! I'm confused, did @JimmieJohnson win or not?" Bowyer tweeted.

Plenty of fans on Twitter were confused throughout the replay, tweeting along as if the race was live. Deadspin ran some of them under the headline, "Scores Of Idiots Don't Realize Fox Is Airing Last Year's Daytona 500."

Even NASCAR couldn't resist jokingly weighing in on the confusion.

"Congrats @JimmieJohnson amazing," tweeted Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president of racing operations.

When the cars finally got back on track, Earnhardt took off. He had some challenges, particularly from the Roush Fenway Racing duo of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, but he managed to break free every time it mattered.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Daytona International Speedway - Daytona Beach, FL
Daytona 500 - Feb. 23, 2014

1. (9) Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Chevrolet, 200 laps, 48 points, $1,506,363.
2. (4) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 200, 43, $1,148,451.
3. (33) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 200, 42, $847,721.
4. (6) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 200, 40, $731,399.
5. (32) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 200, 40, $589,399.
6. (3) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 200, 38, $518,362.
7. (34) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Ford, 200, 37, $434,588.
8. (25) Greg Biffle, Ford, 200, 37, $413,838.
9. (1) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 200, 36, $424,674.
10. (28) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 200, 34, $377,221.
11. (35) Joey Logano, Ford, 200, 34, $376,354.
12. (18) Landon Cassill, Chevrolet, 200, 0, $306,850.
13. (38) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 200, 31, $368,196.
14. (22) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 200, 30, $361,777.
15. (26) Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet, 200, 29, $325,213.
16. (39) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 200, 28, $342,446.
17. (30) Carl Edwards, Ford, 200, 28, $340,638.
18. (7) Marcos Ambrose, Ford, 200, 26, $363,458.
19. (37) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 200, 26, $373,504.
20. (24) Terry Labonte, Ford, 200, 24, $339,996.
21. (8) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 199, 24, $331,763.
22. (19) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 199, 22, $331,638.
23. (29) Alex Bowman, Toyota, 198, 21, $334,346.
24. (11) Josh Wise, Ford, 196, 20, $322,888.
25. (12) Brian Scott, Chevrolet, 196, 0, $336,035.
26. (15) A.J. Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 194, 19, $321,788.
27. (40) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, accident, 193, 18, $327,513.
28. (23) Cole Whitt, Toyota, accident, 193, 16, $315,663.
29. (41) Parker Kligerman, Toyota, accident, 193, 15, $318,338.
30. (31) Brian Vickers, Toyota, 192, 14, $350,388.
31. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 192, 14, $350,413.
32. (10) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 184, 13, $550,702.
33. (14) Trevor Bayne, Ford, accident, 183, 0, $316,438.
34. (43) David Ragan, Ford, 176, 10, $323,738.
35. (21) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 174, 9, $349,521.
36. (17) David Gilliland, Ford, 171, 8, $322,968.
37. (36) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, accident, 161, 7, $313,605.
38. (16) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, accident, 160, 6, $310,248.
39. (13) Aric Almirola, Ford, accident, 146, 6, $317,939.
40. (27) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, accident, 145, 5, $282,778.
41. (42) Michael Waltrip, Toyota, accident, 144, 4, $278,628.
42. (20) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, engine, 127, 2, $302,344.
43. (2) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, engine, 30, 1, $292,311.

Average Speed of Race Winner: 145.290 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 26 minutes, 29 seconds.

Margin of Victory: Under Caution.

Caution Flags: 7 for 39 laps.

Lead Changes: 42 among 18 drivers.

Lap Leaders: A.Dillon 1; D.Hamlin 2-10; Ku.Busch 11-25; P.Menard 26-30; D.Hamlin 31; Ky.Busch 32-45; K.Kahne 46; Ky.Busch 47; K.Kahne 48; Ky.Busch 49; D.Hamlin 50-55; Ky.Busch 56; B.Keselowski 57; Ky.Busch 58-59; B.Keselowski 60-63; P.Menard 64-70; J.Logano 71-72; B.Keselowski 73-75; T.Bayne 76-77; A.Almirola 78-82; A.Allmendinger 83; J.Allgaier 84; D.Patrick 85-86; J.Allgaier 87; M.Waltrip 88-89; P.Menard 90-106; J.Johnson 107-115; B.Keselowski 116-120; J.Johnson 121-126; J.Allgaier 127-128; M.Waltrip 129-130; D.Earnhardt Jr. 131-143; C.Edwards 144; D.Earnhardt Jr. 145-150; G.Biffle 151-153; D.Earnhardt Jr. 154-155; G.Biffle 156-158; D.Earnhardt Jr. 159-172; G.Biffle 173-174; C.Edwards 175-177; D.Earnhardt Jr. 178; C.Edwards 179-182; D.Earnhardt Jr. 183-200.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): D.Earnhardt Jr., 6 times for 54 laps; P.Menard, 3 times for 29 laps; Ky.Busch, 5 times for 19 laps; D.Hamlin, 3 times for 16 laps; J.Johnson, 2 times for 15 laps; Ku.Busch, 1 time for 15 laps; B.Keselowski, 4 times for 13 laps; G.Biffle, 3 times for 8 laps; C.Edwards, 3 times for 8 laps; A.Almirola, 1 time for 5 laps; J.Allgaier, 3 times for 4 laps; M.Waltrip, 2 times for 4 laps; J.Logano, 1 time for 2 laps; K.Kahne, 2 times for 2 laps; T.Bayne, 1 time for 2 laps; D.Patrick, 1 time for 2 laps; A.Dillon, 1 time for 1 lap; A.Allmendinger, 1 time for 1 lap.

Top 12 in Points: 1. D.Earnhardt Jr., 48; 2. D.Hamlin, 43; 3. Bra.Keselowski, 42; 4. J.Gordon, 40; 5. J.Johnson, 40; 6. M.Kenseth, 38; 7. R.Stenhouse Jr., 37; 8. G.Biffle, 37; 9. A.Dillon, 36; 10. C.Mears, 34; 11. J.Logano, 34; 12. K.Harvick, 31.
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